A Long-Term Strategy for a Democratic Iraq


If U.S. policymakers desire a whole, stable, and democratic Iraqi state, then the United States requires a strategy that fosters this objective. Yet public debate over what to do in Iraq is mired in the examination of short-term options that are unanchored from long-term vision. It may not be too late to elevate the debate from the tactical to the strategic — from the short to the long term — to facilitate the development of a U.S. strategy that may help preserve Iraq’s national integrity. Such a strategy will require addressing the root causes of the current conflict: Sunni disenfranchisement must be undone, the Shi’a majority must feel secure, and the Kurds must have good reason to believe the Iraqi state offers them a safe and productive future. All minorities must be safeguarded. Effective strategy will require the patience to forego the enticement of dangerous short-term alternatives that will erode rather than nurture chances for stability.

Two of the many proposed solutions for the crisis in Iraq have gained traction: either the United States can conduct air strikes against to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in order to preserve the current Iraqi state, or it can accept and help consolidate the de facto partition of Iraq into three sectarian and ethnic states. Airstrikes are a military tactic that would, ostensibly, stop ISIL in its tracks and give the Iraqi army a chance to regain lost ground. Advocates of partition propose that Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis have already abandoned the central state and the Iraqi constitution in favor of three smaller sectarian or ethnic states. Neither of these solutions is, in fact, a solution because neither is derived from, nor supports, a vision for long-term stability for Iraq.

Killing Sunni leaders and fighters with airstrikes is neither a political strategy nor even tactically viable. While the first wave of strikes may succeed in killing members of ISIL, targets will quickly dry up as the smarter ISIL fighters disperse and conceal themselves more deeply among the Iraqi populace. And without a practical Iraqi Army campaign plan to retake northern and western Iraq, airstrikes will have no operational value; they will not even further the mid-term objective of re-stitching the state. If this operational plan exists it has not been articulated, and at least for now it seems impracticable.

And while ISIL and other groups have made significant progress in northern and western Iraq, the battle lines have probably solidified in the center and east. While ISIL can do great damage if it manages to close the Baghdad airport, it will be hard pressed to make any lasting gains in Baghdad or in the southern Shi’a-dominated provinces. The argument that airstrikes will help “stop the bleeding” is rapidly losing traction.

More importantly, though, the airstrikes would undermine rather than support the strategic objective of a unified democratic state. They would kill not only ISIL leaders and cadres, but also many nationalist Sunni fighters who are far more representative of the broader Sunni Iraqi polity. Even tactically successful airstrikes will signal to the millions of non-ISIL Iraqi Sunni that the United States has chosen to help Iran to oppress and separate the Sunni from the Iraqi state. This may be an unfair perception, but it is one that has been clearly articulated to me by many Sunni tribal and former military leaders. Airstrikes are likely to push the Sunni population further away from the central government, and from U.S. interlocutors who seek their lasting cooperation.

The second option, partition, will fail for three key reasons. First, it will effectively deprive the Sunni of revenue from Iraq’s oil production. While there are both proven and unproven oil and gas reserves in Sunni areas, they pale in comparison to the resources that would be wholly controlled by the Shi’a and Kurds. Any belief that a separate, or even federal Shi’a or Kurdish state would willingly share parts of its oil revenue with Sunni Iraqis is fantastical. Sunni Iraqis will not accept the near total loss of oil revenue; they will continue to fight and they will do so with enough regional support to ensure a long and violent period of instability.

The second reason partition will fail is that the Sunni do not want to secede and do not wish to form their own state separate from Baghdad. Based on my conversations with Sunni leaders from December 2013 through mid-June 2014, analysis of Arabic-language Sunni speeches and writings, and a comparative analysis of two months of recent social media posts from the Sunni Anbar Province, there is almost no evidence of secessionist language. Instead, the Sunni revolution is described as a nationalist, Iraqi revolution.

There is far less evidence in the broad Sunni narrative of anti-Shi’a vitriol than of anti-government and anti-Iran vitriol. Sunni anger is directed against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi government, and Iran, not against Shi’a Iraqis. This anger is derived from the Sunni belief that Iran is controlling Maliki and that Iranian leaders and their own prime minister are purposefully disenfranchising and killing Sunni Iraqis. Narratives in Iraq are often inflated, but there is ample evidence to support Sunni grievances. The perceived hatred between some Sunni and Shi’a Iraqis is real, but it is hatred for the current government that is driving anti-state violence. The assumption that Iraq is part of a regional sectarian civil war within Islam should be more carefully evaluated.

Many Sunni want to sustain a strong central state, but they want one that protects their rights and provides them with fair — and in some cases unfairly generous — resources. Whether or not one accepts all of the Sunni claims of disenfranchisement, one cannot argue that Sunni perception of disenfranchisement leads to Sunni violence against the Iraqi state. Partition will only further this sense of disenfranchisement and further alienate even moderate Sunni Iraqis. Indeed it seems likely the Sunni would view partition as a de facto confirmation of disenfranchisement, and consequently, as a justifiable cause for permanent revolt. Partition would make Baghdad a more justifiable target.

Thirdly, partition will reinforce rather than undermine ISIL and other extremist groups. There will be no reason for the Sunni to turn against the most powerful Sunni militant group if they see no other hope for a future within the Iraqi state. ISIL’s continued existence in Iraq will perpetuate instability, but it will also have a more insidious effect over time. While many Sunni do not currently see Shi’a Iraqis as their primary threat, their sentiment may change if the most extreme Sunni are allowed to dominate Sunni discourse.

Today ISIL leaders are extremists who do not represent the beliefs or wishes of the Iraqi Sunni. There is little evidence of sustainable popular support for ISIL or for its objective of establishing a strict Islamic caliphate in Iraq. Sunni who I have spoken with would abandon ISIL tomorrow if given a viable alternative to anti-state violence. In a recent interview, a leader of a nationalist Sunni militant group stated, “ISIL has hijacked our revolution.” Partition will ensure that ISIL retains control of the revolution for some time.

A viable strategy for a whole, stable, and democratic Iraqi state is called for. Instead of conducting airstrikes or recognizing partition the United States, its regional allies, and hopefully, Iran can help facilitate a transition to a more inclusive Iraqi democracy. This will require assuaging Sunni disenfranchisement. While there is no single Sunni leader who represents all or even most Sunni Iraqis, the list of Sunni grievances is clear. Some can be practicably addressed for broad and immediate effect. Here is a list of these grievances composed from multiple sources, including direct communication from Sunni politicians, tribal leaders, and former military leaders. Statements are “paraphrased” to reflect the Sunni narrative:

  • Amnesty for detainees: “Unlawfully detained prisoners must be released in accordance with the 2008 general amnesty law of Iraq.”
  • Government rebalancing: “Sunni are under-represented according to population percentage. Sunni must be represented as equals with the other groups.”
  • Stop shelling cities: “Immediately cease the indiscriminate shelling of Iraqi cities, including but not limited to Ramadi and Fallujah.”
  • Withdraw from the cities: “Iraqi Security Forces and emergency forces must immediately withdraw from all Sunni cities.”
  • Reconstruct the cities: “Rebuild the Sunni cities that have been damaged in recent fighting.”
  • Fight al Qaida, not the Sunni: “The government must stop identifying all Sunni as al Qaida and instead help the Sunni to fight foreign and local al Qaida.”
  • ISF repurposing: “The Iraqi Army is being used inappropriately to dominate and destroy the Sunni. All must obey Iraqi law.”
  • Release Ahmad Al-Alwani: “Member of Parliament Dr. Ahmad al-Alwani must be released from prison or granted a quick and impartial hearing by a committee.”
  • Annul arrest warrants: “Any current warrants against Sunni leaders must be annulled. Lawful protests must be allowed.”
  • Return internally displaced persons and compensate: “All internally displaced persons must be returned and compensated for damage to their homes and costs of displacement.”

Some of these grievances are unrealistic. For example, many Sunni believe that they represent nearly half of Iraq’s population, while they probably represent far less. This issue can be addressed with a valid national census, but the stability required for a census appears to be a long way off. Some grievances are less amenable to negotiation than others, but the act of creating a viable reconciliation process may lead to a holistic negotiated solution as viable Sunni leaders emerge.

A Sunni leader may yet emerge. Some Sunni believe that Shi’a politician Ayad Alawi would be preferable to Maliki. Alawi’s campaign in the 2014 election was designed to preserve his neutrality between Sunni and Shi’a. He only gained a few seats with this approach, but in doing so he retained and reinforced his bona fides as a cross-cutting candidate. It is more likely that several less well-known leaders will emerge from the current conflict in Anbar and Nineweh Provinces. However, reconciliation does not necessarily require a single, valid Sunni leader, or even a leadership council.

No such leader has emerged in the 11 years since the Sunni were ejected from power. Indeed it may be preferable for the Iraqi state find a way to unilaterally address Sunni grievances without attempting to find the “right people” to speak with. This approach would not only circumvent lengthy negotiations between hostile parties, but it would also help to prevent further disenfranchising minority Sunni groups. Finding a way to reconcile without negotiation will be tremendously difficult, but it is an option worth exploring. This option would lend itself well to a Shi’a prime minister with the foresight and courage to reach out to the broad Sunni polity with legitimate and practical offerings.

Shi’a and Kurdish grievances and fears must also be addressed. While the Shi’a are now the largest and technically the most powerful group in Iraq, they are also internally divided and fearful of the return of the Sunni Ba’athists. And now that the Kurds have seized Kirkuk, there is little holding them back from announcing independence. If the Shi’a do not see value in a change of course, and if the Kurds are not incentivized to stay within the Iraqi state, then no accommodation with the Sunni will keep Iraq together. Any strategy to preserve Iraq must be holistic, and it must also take into account the interests of neighboring states that can either support or derail reconciliation.

At some point, perhaps after a ceasefire has been arranged, the Iraqis will need to hold their own constitutional convention. The United States should be wedded to the idea of Iraqi democracy, but this does not necessarily mean protecting the current constitution at all costs. Successful democracy requires a constitution that represents and protects all Iraqi citizens. The current one — written in haste and under the auspices of U.S. occupation — has failed. It is time for the United States and regional states to help the Iraqis write their own future, or perhaps to step out of the way and let them do so on their own.

Unfortunately no strategic option for a unified, democratic Iraq has a good chance of success. But any well-considered option that does not involve ineffective killing or risking U.S. lives is preferable to simply allowing Iraq to disintegrate, and consequently, feed broader regional instability.

Challenges are significant but clear: Sunni grievances are declared but difficult to address. Iraqi Shi’a would be suspicious of any option that undid their control over the state. Kurds may see no lasting value in a negotiated solution that erodes their recent geographic gains in Kirkuk. And United States and regional policymakers may deem any further intervention, even non-violent intervention, as impractical. Yet any and all options that support long-term U.S. strategy should be carefully considered. Because there is little to lose from a non-kinetic approach, a holistic, long-term strategy should be articulated and actively supported. At the same time, any options devoid of strategic value should be viewed askance. As John F. Kennedy once said, “Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”


Ben Connable is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.


Photo credit: Al Jazeera English